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Task force will ask Legislature for millions to help with county legal costs


Task force will ask Legislature for millions to help with county legal costs

Sep 14, 2023 | 3:50 pm ET
By Makenzie Huber
Task force will ask Legislature for millions to help with county legal costs
Legislators on the Study Committee on County Funding and Services address a crowd at the South Dakota County Convention in Sioux Falls on Sept. 13, 2023. (Makenzie Huber/South Dakota Searchlight)

The top proposal to come out of the legislative summer study on county funding could cost an estimated $35 million to $50 million annually, according to a committee member.

The proposal would set a cap on public defender and court-appointed attorney costs for counties, likely around $10,000 for each case, while the state would cover the rest of the expenses. 

Meanwhile, another summer task force has endorsed the creation of a state public defender’s office to handle some of the cases that counties currently pay for when defendants can’t afford an attorney; that proposal’s estimated cost is $1.4 million annually.

Public defender recommendation won’t provide relief to cash-strapped counties, legislator says

The county funding committee, chaired by Rep. Roger Chase, R-Huron, who shared the cost estimate, and Sen. Randy Deibert, R-Spearfish, whittled more than 20 proposals down to eight bills and two resolutions to be pursued during the next legislative session in Pierre, which begins in January.

The chairs will deliver a report to the legislative Executive Board in November. If approved, the Legislative Research Council will draft the bills.

“It’s going to be a tough pull,” Chase admitted.

But he’s confident the bills will be carried through the Legislature, noting there are influential committee members standing behind the bills, such as appropriators and longtime legislators.

“This is the year,” Chase said, “to do something for the counties.”

The top five proposals with the most support from the committee are:

  • Capping indigent legal defense costs for counties.
  • Increasing the portion of alcohol sales taxes received by counties.
  • Creating a state cybersecurity grant program for local governments.
  • Allowing counties to charge administrative fees to schools and cities for property tax collection.
  • Funding veteran service officers through the state instead of through counties.

Sen. Jim Mehlhaff, R-Pierre, said he wants to see an annual total cap on what counties would pay each year for indigent defense. Individual case caps and annual caseload caps would have a two-fold impact for counties, legislators said: lessening their financial burden and allowing them to budget more effectively.

Task force recommends creation of state public defender’s office

Deibert’s district in Lawrence County, for example, is budgeting over $619,000 for its public defender costs for fiscal year 2024 and another $300,000 for its court-appointed attorney costs. Court-appointed attorneys cost the county over $200,000 alone in the first six months of 2023.

Despite a $100 million sales tax reduction passed last legislative session, Deibert said he believes there will be room in the state’s revenue for the cap program. The state ended the year with a $98.6 million surplus.

“We have to find a way to fund programs that assist counties other than through property tax,” Deibert said.

The second proposal on the list is a plan to switch the distribution of alcohol sales tax between the state and counties. Alcohol tax revenues are divided among cities, counties and the state. Cities and counties get 25% each, while the state gets 50%.

Sen. Jim Bolin, R-Canton, wants to flip it: increase counties to 50% and decrease the state to 25%.

The switch would cost the state roughly $4.5 million. Counties are commonly the “first line of influence” in the criminal justice system, which is heavily impacted by the misuse of drugs and alcohol, Bolin said.

“When I heard about this committee and realized I might get appointed to it, this was my No. 1 priority to try and bring this bill forward to add some more money to counties and make it a much fairer situation,” Bolin said.

Committee members aren’t hopeful Gov. Kristi Noem will change her mind and apply for a federal grant intended to boost cybersecurity for local governments. Instead, the committee plans to propose a state-run cybersecurity grant program. The proposal did not have a dollar amount attached to it.

“If we’re not going to accept the grant, then we’ll legislate an appropriation on a similar program and use South Dakota taxpayer money to do it instead, because it’s so important,” Deibert told South Dakota Searchlight earlier this year.

Legislators hope the proposal to fund veteran service officers through the state rather that counties will lead to better support for veterans and better training for officers. Several counties only employ part-time VSOs instead of offering full-time support to its veterans. There was not a dollar amount attached to that proposal.

Two topics heavily talked about as problems for counties throughout the summer — the consequences of a criminal justice and jail overhaul bill from the 2010s, and counties’ ineligibility to receive sales tax revenue — did not move forward.

Sen. Helene Duhamel, R-Rapid City, was one of the few legislators supportive of a county sales tax proposal, saying it would force tourists to “have skin in the game” when they drive on county roads and use other county services. She said implementing sales tax for counties could be a component of property tax relief.

But legislators decided both issues need further study before any legislation is introduced.

The legislative Executive Board will meet Nov. 14 and 15 in Pierre.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect a correction to the estimated cost of the proposed cap on indigent legal defense costs for counties.